On a cold, sunny November afternoon, Helen Harris raced through the diamond district. She doesn’t have a deadline, and there’s no rush – running away is simply how one moves through this part of Midtown Manhattan, through lots of diamonds into the United States finally passed. Ms. Harris, 40, is doing her business, picking and dropping her jewels for polishers, engravers and diamond setters.
Like the intricate gold and diamond mouthpieces she makes for clients – including rapper Big Sean, fashion designer Brandon Blackwoodand models Indira Scott and Solange Van Doorn Miss Harris attracts attention.
As she walked, with black Burberry trousers draped over her six-meter-tall face, her head turned and her eyes followed. As she spoke, the “trillion cuts” in her golden oven began to surface. Her necklace, one with a 5-inch Jesus pendant, hung around her neck to the rhythm of her steps.
“If she made you and me the same grill, we would still have a personal connection to it,” said Mr Blackwood, who also has her other pieces of jewelry, including a Rolex. that she wears diamonds, said in a phone interview.
“There’s a little subtlety that really separates her work,” he said. “It doesn’t look like a factory.”
Grills became popular on the hip-hop scene of the 1980s but have evolved into statement pieces often worn by many artists including Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. Styles are timeless and vary by region. (Florida likes all gold, shiny tops and bottoms called perms, because they resemble permanent gold teeth.)
In the 1990s, rappers like Flavor Flav, Slick Rick, and Big Daddy Kane wore barbeques. In Houston, rapper Paul Wall, who made Beyoncé barbecues, started making them and they became his icons throughout his rapping career. He now owns a department store where every part of the grill is manufactured on site, from casting to polishing.
“We didn’t call them grills back then, we called them golden teeth,” he says, adding that most people don’t like grills because they are removable. Usually, people have gold teeth implanted at the dentist.
After that, Wu-Tang and the others started wearing barbeques without going to the dentist. “It’s really a removable Class A grill,” says Paul Wall. “It’s really like a change of tide.”
He has made baked goods for countless clients, including rappers 2 Chainz and Ludacris, and he attributes the art to the uniqueness and personalization of each set.
“We’ve done grills with people with wide distances and they say, ‘No, don’t close my gap, I want two separate grills’,” he said. “For me, it’s art.”
For Mrs. Harris, baked goods are her legacy.
“It’s really a connection to my culture,” she said. “I won’t give it up because I have a lot of work to do.”
Some of Mrs. Harris’ designs are in solid gold and others in platinum; many are studded with brilliant diamonds or opals. She often refers to the Black South and the Midwest in her writings. Some customers prefer two luxurious gold caps on the front teeth; others choose an entire top and bottom, or simply a bottom bridge. Her most requested designs use precious stones, such as amethyst, quartz, and jade.
Inside Manhattan Polishing on 47th Street, distinctive jeweled lights shone in her face. She could feel eyes on her but still negotiated, unabashedly, rummaging through her purse for tickets. She is choosing a barbecue set for a client.
The man at the counter, 18-year-old Joseph Vasquez, offered to clean up any other items she had. Miss Harris’ neat French manicure dipped in and out of many pockets until she found the ticket she was looking for. Later 2,600 businesses in the district, Mrs. Harris has found only a few that she believes are as meticulous as she is in their baking process. Finally, she’s interested in molding, casting, stone laying, polishing, and sometimes laser finishing.
“I’m getting everything ready,” Miss Harris said in a soft, warm voice. “I have suppliers with whom I have a wholesale relationship and I work with them in the diamond district, Florida and Louisiana. I think those people are all the best at what they do. What my people in Florida do, people in New York don’t do. So as a business owner and designer, I truly believe that I am selling a product with integrity, even if my hands are not making it.”
Growing up in Milwaukee, Ms. Harris was always sure of her identity and worth. She remains confident even though she is not always well received by others. Dealing with people in the jewelry business isn’t always easy, she said.
“The diamond district is a difficult place to navigate if you are a diverse person,” she said as she dashed into another building.
“It’s racist, sexist and homophobic,” said Ms Harris, a lesbian, of her experiences in the diamond district. “Sometimes someone is generous enough to admit it to me and try to help me find the best path to accomplishing what I need to do.”
One of those people is Amir Farsijany, 70, who owns Sarah Jewelry and has run a stall in the district for 45 years. Mr. Farsijany advises her on who she can trust and if she is paying too much for any service. He kept an eye on her. “She is one of the most honest people I have ever seen,” he said. “If one day I don’t see her, I text her, ‘What happened to you?'”
Jewelry is not always the plan
After graduating from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in cultural and interdisciplinary studies, Ms. Harris moved to Brooklyn with a schoolmate. After a few false starts, including traveling to Taiwan to teach English, she landed at the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn in 2012.
Ms. Harris is looking for a livable salary. She took courses in computer science and decided to enroll in a certificate program that would allow her to enter the tech industry, thinking it would be a good opportunity to make money. In 2014, after completing several other certification programs, she got a job at a data storage company and moved to Utah.
“The first salary I got was not even the full 50,000 dollars, but to not be unemployed anymore and get to work every day, learning more skills that make you more valuable, that means is the world to me,” Ms. Harris said.
In Utah, Ms. Harris, who at the time was considered more masculine, was very private. Male colleagues often ask her if she is married when she returns from a long weekend visit with her girlfriend in New York. She stayed with the company for 5 years and resigned in 2019.
“I just felt like there was nothing I could do about it,” Ms. Harris said. “I also felt I had to cut ties for my own health. I was feeling pretty scared.”
When she resigned, Ms. Harris made barbecue, but only as a hobby. She sold her first set to a woman she met at a concert by The-Dream in Williamsburg.
“I lost a lot of confidence,” said Miss Harris, her voice timid.
She sold her second pair to a friend of her first client. It was the encouragement and support Ms. Harris needed. She created an Instagram account using the @ handleHelenWithTheGoldTeeth and start taking appointments. She currently has 21,500 followers.
When Raisa Flowers, a makeup artist, met Harris in 2019, she owned a set of grills. (She discovered this style through Nelly’s 2005 video for “Grillz“Starring Paul Wall.) Ms. Flowers had an idea for a new grill and thought Ms. Harris could make it: She wanted to combine stone and texture, but she also wanted ‘perms’ or highly polished gold, incorporated in. She presented her concept concepts to Ms. Harris, who put them together to make her a four-piece grill.
Miss Flowers’ grill consists of her eight bottom teeth and upper right canine in white gold, an opal on her right and a red rose on her right front tooth. “She just perfected it and made it really great,” Ms. Hoa said.
Ms. Harris recently completed courses in 3-D design at the New York Institute of Jewelry Design in the diamond district and will attend a bench jeweler training course in Tennessee this winter. She also hopes to do something with her business that she hasn’t been able to do before: start a jewelry collection.
“It makes sense for me to make jewelry what I want to do in the tech sector, which is to put my whole self into it and then see what I can get back,” Ms. Harris said. “This is worthy of all me.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/27/style/helen-with-the-gold-teeth-grills.html Helen, with golden teeth